Christian Living


Michael W. Smith: Reviving Musical Pillars of the Faith

Chris Carpenter - Director of Internet Programming

A stalwart in contemporary Christian music for the last 33 years, Michael W. Smith has recorded all types of music. There have been pop albums, praise recordings, and even a couple of instrumental releases along the way. But fairly new to his extensive repertoire is the music that he was raised on while growing up in rural West Virginia – hymns.

In association with Cracker Barrel restaurants, the two-time multi-platinum artist has released a second collection of old time Gospel favorites, Hymns II – Shine on UsFeaturing classic songs like “I’ll Fly Away”, “His Eye is on the Sparrow”, and “I’d Rather Have Jesus”, the album is a follow-up to the 2014 Cracker Barrel release, Hymns.

I recently sat down with Michael to discuss the new album, his desire to keep hymns in the mainstream, and why these musical pillars of the faith can still soothe the soul.

The new album is called Hymns II – Shine on Us and is only available at participating Cracker Barrel restaurants. This is the follow-up you did with them called simply Hymns. What can you tell me about the new album and how did the relationship with Cracker Barrel come about?

I was in Cracker Barrel one time and I see all of these CDs.  I’m thinking, whoa, why can’t I do something for Cracker Barrel.  Somebody made the call and they seemed to be really interested and really into the idea, so we decided on a hymns project. They picked all of my favorite hymns I grew up singing in the church, and it just did really well. It just superseded all of our expectations. So, they came back and asked, ‘Hey, would you like to do Hymns II? Can you take another stab at this, and see if you can come up with another list? So, I did.  I had to go back to my hymnbook and found that I sure missed some things. The new album is a little different from the first one because it’s a little bit of the old, but it’s also a little bit of new as well. The production is a little bigger. Some of the best singers in Nashville sang on this record, and in terms of big choir it’s just massive, and that was not the case on the first record.

The further we move forward in the evolution of Christian music it seems like we are hearing less and less hymns in Sunday morning worship.  Why is it important to keep these musical pillars of the faith in the forefront?

I think first and foremost some of those songs are incredible. I think poetically they’re incredible.  Some of them are deep. I think a lot of times with modern worship we just start moving words around.  Don’t get me wrong; I do have some newer songs on here including “Jesus, Only Jesus” which is from the Passion Movement.  With modern worship, it all sounds a little light.  With older hymns you find the simplicity, the directness of them.  I just think they’re timeless, and they still resonate with my heart. I think it has something to do with my life being purely built upon the hymns of my faith, the stuff I’ve sung in church. I feel like they mean even more to me now than they ever have because I’m really kind of singing them out of desperation, a good kind of desperation. When I hear “I Need Thee,” I get choked up driving down the freeway, and I’m the one singing. It doesn’t have anything to do with me singing it, just what it says, ‘I need thee, oh, I need thee, every hour I need thee. Oh bless me now, my Savior; I come to thee.’ That’s my prayer for the day. It sets everything in motion for me. 

To that point, I have a good friend who tells me that often when he is feeling out of sorts that in addition to reading the Bible, he often turns to a hymnbook for comfort.  What is it about hymns that can soothe the soul?

It’s music. I just think music is the most powerful universal language in the world. But what is it about a song, in a three-and-a-half minute song that can literally change your life? That’s remarkable to me. I think it’s a God thing. I don’t think you’re going to hear many preachers in Heaven, but I think you’re going to hear a lot of music.  What is it about music that sort of strikes at the heart of the soul, and just plasters you against the wall and just lets you see things in a whole different way, in a good way? The song that says exactly what you would want to say but you couldn’t write it, but somebody else did, and you get to own that. Pretty cool.

With thousands to choose from, you could have selected just about anything to record for this album.  What is it about these 16 hymns that made it onto Hymns II that make them stand apart from all the rest?

I think at the end of the day it was just my gut instinct to select the 16. These are not only songs that deeply impacted me growing up, but things that I’ve always wanted to do that I didn’t think I would ever get a chance to record.  For example, the song “Down to the River to Pray.”  I’ve heard that song my whole life, but became a huge fan of when it was used in the movie, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.  I’ll never forget watching Sister Act and hearing Lauryn Hill sing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”  I remember that being a moment in time for me that took my breath away.   And then there was the song has been recorded so many times. I started looking at iTunes and realizing this thing has been recorded 300 times. Who needs another version of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” you know? But I just started messing around with it. When I went into the studio I had a list of songs.  We were recording for two days and I kind of got inside of it and started coming up with my own arrangement. I still love the song. I’ve heard it so many times but I still love it. 

Do you have a favorite hymn?

I have a lot of favorites but if I had to pick one it would probably be “It is Well with My Soul”.  It’s powerful. It’s just powerful, there’s no doubt.

You have chosen to put the patriotic anthem “America the Beautiful” on the album.  It is a song that is certainly worthy but many wouldn’t exactly put it in the hymn category.  Was this a must have for you as you recorded Hymns II?

It was for me, and I thought long and hard about it. First, it’s a favorite patriotic song of all time. I still get choked up singing it, and I’ve sung it in concert a few times. When I was thumbing through the hymnbook I got to the patriotic section and saw “America, the Beautiful.” My decision to use it probably has something to do with where we’re at as a nation. I’m not a doomsday guy although I think we’re in trouble on many levels.  But I don’t forget about all of the amazing things that are going on, like amazing people doing amazing things for people. America’s a great idea, there’s no place like it in the entire world.  I don’t forget about the positives of our nation, but I am a bit concerned about the spiritual part of what’s happening.  I didn’t record it because we have a presidential election in 2016. I just felt like it was the right song for the right time that we’re living in, that what we believe would really resonate with the people of this country. 

After people listen to Hymns II – Shine on Us, what do you want your listeners to take away from that experience? 

Maybe that I just gave them something else that helps them express how they feel, you know? I think you’re going to find a lot of kids who have never heard “I Need Thee.” They’ve never heard some of these songs before. I just don’t want to say I hope it encourages, which I do, but I think there’s some things that they can own. It can be a part of their devotional time or time in the car. Turn it up!

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